I saw Krampus last weekend in a nearly full theater. It opened just behind Mockingjay Part 2. It’s hard to predict how “Holiday Movies” will do, so a Christmas horror flick not only doing well but making back its entire budget in a weekend is pretty inexplicable. What’s really interesting about Krampus, the directorial debut of X2 screenwriter Michael Dougherty, is how aggressively, hilariously bleak it is. Just as Krampus himself (itself?) is the dark counterpart to Santa Claus, Krampus the film is the anti-Christmas movie.
One of the fun things about Krampus is how it doesn’t feel obligated to explain too much. Three days prior to Christmas, young Max (Emjay Anthony) has to face that he may be outgrowing his favorite Christmas traditions. Soon after, Max and his parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are stuck putting up with the rapid fire rudeness of Sarah’s extended family, including her sister Linda (Fargo‘s Alison Tolman), her gun nut husband Howard (David Koechner), and their four children. When Max’s obnoxious cousins steal and read aloud his letter to Santa, Max angrily disowns Christmas and tears up his letter. This alone is enough to summon a brutal snowstorm, an army of creepy snowmen and… Krampus.
A good comedy or a good horror movie needs to have something real behind it, some kind of genuine weight or emotionality. Even more so if it’s a Christmas movie. Krampus, being all three of these things, works thanks to some really strong, understated performances. Toni Collette’s basically great in everything, but she makes what could have been a pretty forgettable “mom” part in the Sarah character really memorable. We watch her struggle to put on a good face despite her boorish extended family’s constant nagging and criticism. When “here because no one else would have her” Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) fires off yet another thoughtless remark about Sarah’s cooking, Collette spits out “I thought your family might enjoy something besides mac and cheese with hot dogs in it” with exquisitely quiet, I’ve had enough of this shit venom.
Collette and Scott’s scenes together as spouses whose marriage is falling apart is made even more tragic by the fact that they don’t scream at each other or anything. Sitting by a window together once the supernatural creepiness has rolled in, they both quietly acknowledge that things between them are just different. Collette’s last line to her son before she’s dragged away to her death is simply “I love you.” Krampus is a rare horror comedy that allows characters the benefit of some sense of self-actualization before they are unceremoniously dismembered by toys.
I can’t say enough good things about Krista Stadler as Max’s eerily quiet German “omi”, who brings some serious gravitas to just about every minute of screentime she has. Stadler commits to everything, from demonic teddy bears to her genuine affection for her grandson, with total seriousness. Her childhood history with regards to the Krampus and the sacrifice she makes are the backbone that holds the film together and her stoicism makes jokes like “English. I knew it!” even funnier.
A big element of why Krampus is so good is that it throws genuinely unsettling monsters at our suburban heroes, the creepiest of whom are impressive puppets rather than CGI (the aforementioned gingerbread men are disappointingly digital and sort of cheap looking). Children are eaten by a slinking, serpent-like jack in the box monster with a multi-segmented mouth. An angelic doll with nails for teeth licks Toni Collette’s face in between attempts to tear out her throat. Children, even a baby, are not protected from Krampus’s grasp. Krampus is a scary movie in the sense that it mixes laughs with moments of genuine unease, like when the jack in the box monster claps to celebrate the arrival of Krampus’ inhuman “elves.” The film also gets a fair bit of mileage out of the group of unmoving, eerie snowmen who begin to gather outside Max’s home. When Krampus finally appears in full, a crude mockery of Santa Claus with rolling, bulging eyes, his mere presence causes a power surge that makes Christmas music play.
Krampus is a movie that not only revels in its darkness, it heroically refuses to ever back down from it. I think Deadshirter Joe Stando summed it up perfectly in a text chain as “A Christmas movie where the little boy who loves Santa is thrown into Hell.” It is ruthless. When Max bravely offers his life in exchange for his family’s, Krampus wipes a tear from the boys face before laughing in it. There’s no happy ending to be found in Krampus, a film that treats its cloven hoofed villain as a kind of yuletide Terminator. Deep in its coal black heart, however, is a cautionary tale about the terrible, destructive power of cynicism.
Krampus is now playing.